Why I hate targeting


Image courtesy of Rebecca Ellen

I have always been deeply suspicious of targeting in advertising.

I don’t really mean the practice of placing communications, engagement and utility into the lives of the people most likely to buy. That does seem pretty sensible. No, the thing that bugs me is an obsession with targeting and optimisation that either elevates this above the quality of what you create in that ‘space’ or sees it as the holy grail of advertising. Because the reality is that the theory of targeting is always far more compelling than the reality of it.

I have always worried that over optimisation can lead to long-term brand and business damage because tomorrow’s prospects are never primed. Indeed this kind of targeting seems to have the primary effect of driving a brand underground where only those people thoroughly acquainted with it are ever touched. Loads of brands could absolutely do with a big dose of wastage so that a broader audience feels their presence – that’s one of the enduring joys of outdoor as a medium.

Then I got mildly concerned about the concept of addressable advertising that was ushered in by the set top box. This promised the ability to serve TV advertising at the postcode level using profiles of those areas to make sweeping generalisations about the audience viewing. The prospect of mainstream advertising becoming as irritating as database driven marketing filled me with horror but fortunately this doesn’t appear to have got much further than titillating the geeks at technology conferences.

But the thing that really gets my goat right now and is cut from the same presumptuous and arrogant cloth is search driven digital display. Clearly a whole bunch of people at digital agencies, client marketing departments and places like Google are cock-a-hoop at the cunning wheeze of serving you ads for things you have searched for recently. I mean why wouldn’t they be since they are all disciples of the targeting cult? Don’t get me wrong I understand that the idea of knowing what people want to buy before you serve them an ad is genuinely revolutionary. Or at least it would be if it actually worked.

The trouble is that all targeting makes assumptions about people and the harder that you try to make them the greater the likelihood that you will fall flat on your face.

John Lewis are up to it right at the moment. I recently searched for children's pyjamas on and so they are currently using their display to serve me advertising for children's pyjamas, suggesting pyjamas that I might like to buy. Constantly. I can’t get away from advertising for children’s pyjamas. The problem is I made that search and bought the pyjamas two weeks ago. I don’t need any more children’s fucking pyjamas and it’s starting to get on my tits. Someone somewhere thinks they are being bloody clever but actually they are being fucking dumb and in attempting to target their advertising so well they are wasting their cash and pissing off their customers. Its like a digital equivalent of stalking or what it would feel like if you popped down John Lewis and bought something and then some bloke arrived at your doorstep two weeks later trying to flog you exactly the same thing.

You see the ultimate problem with targeting is that for all the assumptions the hardest thing to do with any accuracy is to tell when people are in the market and why they are there. You can’t know that and the more you try the more irritating you become. Direct mail was bad enough but digital takes it to a new level of annoyance. To bastardise John Lewis’s endline this is advertising that appears to be never knowingly relevant.


Great post. It reminds me of the notion that all great media vehicles have two kinds of content:
1) That which I expect to get, and therefore would be disappointed if I didn't get.
2) That which I don't expect to get, but I am truly thrilled when I do (this is the delighter factor).

Too much of 1) and no 2) creates mundane content. Too much of 2) and not enough 1) creates clutter and chaos.

Too much targetting means you don't expand your market. Too much "non-targetting" means waste. As always, success lies in getting the balance right.

Posted by: Mats at October 26, 2011 10:31 PM

I agree totally with your point regarding a decent dose of wastage broadening your pool.

Further, I think that targeting during the media strategy and planning part can ultimately be a waste of time, as it gets lost by buyers not knowing what the hell is going on- they either dont give a shit and have buying agreements they need to fulfill or the planners havent been arsed to talk to them- and also by there not being the actual ability to target against the audience the planning says you should go after.

From a retention point of view however, targeting can be really useful and re-targeting someone who hasn't complete a transaction but has a basket full stuff seems like a no brainer. But to play on you JL point, if you ended up getting PJ's from M&S then JL are just wasting their impressions/cash.

Posted by: matt at October 27, 2011 01:52 PM

Brands are shared symbols, badges of belonging. In an extremely superficial way, this makes up for the social capital they've helped erode.

Hyper targeting removes this benefit, positioning the brand as relevant to the individual alone instead of the wider group. Brands talking to the 'me' rather than the 'we' exacerbate our lonely consumer existence rather than offering some much needed relief from it.

Even if that relief is illusory...

Posted by: M Kippenberger at October 27, 2011 02:17 PM

You get pyjamas. I get hire cars.

I wanted to hire a car. I went to and hired one.

Europcar now follow me around the internet like an annoying dog.


Posted by: Pete at October 27, 2011 02:29 PM

You are the person who can do something about it.

The technology is powerful and compelling, why isn't it translating into results? You can make it work better. Not that schmuck at the digital agency. Not the planner who wants your job. You are the one in charge.

At least look into it and see if there's anything you can do to make it better. It has the potential to be revolutionary. Exploring this is low risk, high reward.

For all of us who want to make advertising better, less annoying,and more persuasive, give us hope

Posted by: Tony at October 27, 2011 03:35 PM

Great minds and all that. I've just done a similar rant but pants are the culprit in my case. Infinitely more embarrassing than pyjamas or hire cars I reckon!

Posted by: Tess Alps at October 27, 2011 04:01 PM

Pete and Tess,

Perhaps we should keep account of our online advertising stalkers - I buy one dildo! etc etc.

Posted by: Richard at October 27, 2011 07:45 PM


I think part of the problem is that the people thinking about the technology have no interest in the creative quality of the content and vice versa. The targeting cult holds that the medium is more important than the message, this is disappointing for those of us manfully struggling to improve the latter part of this equation.

Posted by: Richard at October 27, 2011 07:55 PM